Hirt fills starting role for Gophers

Kayla Hirt has the ability to space the floor with her 3-point shot.

Jack Satzinger

Pam Borton appeared disappointed in the Williams Arena media room after a loss to Iowa a couple of weeks ago.

Her team had just dropped to 2-6 in the Big Ten after what Borton called “a very poor display of basketball.”

Borton was on the hot seat.

The Gophers have arguably the best player in the conference in junior guard Rachel Banham and one of the best freshmen in the Big Ten in center Amanda Zahui B.

Still, Minnesota continued to lose because there wasn’t consistent support for its key players.

Now, after winning two straight conference games, it appears the team has found a solution to take pressure off its stars.

The Gophers have inserted Kayla Hirt into the starting lineup to space the floor, which has given Zahui B. more room to operate down low.

“The paint’s not clogged [anymore],” Borton said. “And people have to guard us honestly because Kayla’s a scorer.”

Hirt stretches the floor with her ability to knock down the outside shot. Hirt said she’s been focusing on her jumper more this season.

“I definitely have to be able to hit those shots,” the sophomore said. “I think it’ll take a lot of pressure off of Rachel and Amanda. That’s exactly what [coach] is looking for.”

Hirt said she doesn’t feel like her game’s changed much this season, but Borton said she has noticed some differences.

“She’s fitter than she’s ever been,” Borton said. “I think Kayla’s been a lot more focused at practice.”

Banham has also noticed some changes on the court with Hirt in the starting lineup.

She said Hirt’s ability to score makes it harder for opponents to defend the pick-and-roll. Hirt can score anywhere inside the 3-point line, and that skill has completely changed the flow of Minnesota’s offense.

“It always helps being able to come off a pick-and-roll with her, and she’ll pop,” Banham said. “It changes how our starting five comes out and plays.”

Minnesota’s bench looks different now, too, and sophomore Jackie Johnson is playing more minutes.

She was on the court for 29 minutes in Sunday’s win over Illinois and stole the ball in the final seconds to seal the win.

“We need a little more versatility in that four position,” Borton said. “I think Jackie’s getting more comfortable there.”  

Zahui B., Johnson and Hirt are all underclassmen, and Hirt said she thinks the group could become dominant down the road.

Borton agreed but said right now, it’s all about supporting Banham and Zahui B.

“Whatever it takes,” Hirt said, “we’ll do it.”